As restaurants and bars that had been closed since March opened for outdoor dining this weekend, pictures of packed patios from around the state appeared to show operators and patrons ignoring social distancing protocols. And some restaurants didn’t open their patios for service at all.
The bar at OPA! in downtown Delaware features more than 1300 bottles of bourbon, some of which are rare. And while Genti Koci has been making Greek favorites for carry-out, there were no customers on his patio this weekend. Koci looked at the weather forecast, which predicted rain for much of the time.
“I don’t know what a person can do when they are eating on the patio and it suddenly starts raining. Do they go inside or do you throw them out?," Koci asked.
Since indoor dining isn't allowed till this coming Thursday, Koci says he didn’t want to be in the position of possibly offending customers. He elected to continue his take out service and use the time to get things in order.
“We’re holding a little bit, trying to understand the regulations and interpret all of those regulations that are thrown to us in a short period of time. We made the right decision to keep everybody safe. We want our customers to be safe. We want our personnel to be safe. So we are going a little slow," Koci said.
A few doors down, the owner of The Backstretch Bar and Grill, Joanne Meyer, made the same decision about her patio. And she says it was tough.
“This weekend is supposed to be the arts festival which to me is the start of the summer season and the streets are packed full of people and today would have been a perfect day for it," Meyer said.
So, Meyer decided to donate $5 from every meal ordered as part of a take-out promotion to the Arts Castle, a community non-profit that provides art lessons and events. Meyer says she knows that’s what the community wanted.
“Because we wanted to do it right. I did a survey with our customers and had over a 40% response and 96% said they were not comfortable with all of the immediate releases. We only had a few that said it didn’t concern them at all and so I took that to heart and we are going to go slow to make sure we have every precaution that we can in place and that our staff is trained well with all of the new procedures," Meyer explained.
That feedback is consistent with the finding of a new study that compared the shopping behavior of Ohioans before COVID-19 and now, and it shows consumers are more worried about their safety. Hinda Mitchell with Inspire Public Relations, which works with restaurants, says it shows customers are reluctant to return to stores and restaurants.
“They are definitely fearful about how other consumers will behave and how other consumers might expose them to the virus. And I think the message that sends for business owners, even beyond the restaurant and groceries space is that managing those consumer expectations and providing information about your health and safety protocols is going to be critical," Mitchell said.
To help bars and restaurants, Delaware created an outdoor refreshment area for much of the weekend. It allows people who purchase beer and wine from restaurants and bars to openly carry the drinks throughout that area. Other cities did too. Some streets in Cincinnati were closed so restaurants could expand seating outdoors to help with social distancing.
But social media was peppered with pictures of bar and restaurant patios that appeared to show a lack of compliance with state orders and guidelines from the Ohio Restaurant Association. Its president, John Barker, said restaurants were supposed to practice social distancing.
“We’ve talked to them and said, ‘you’ve got to make sure you have somebody on staff who is capable of talking to guests and staying six feet away and will have things marked on floors at certain times. We are going to have tables blocked off, bar stools that won’t be used. It’s going to be a very different experience and we are going to expect everybody to be a good citizen and if they’re not, the local health department will have a conversation with them and it won’t be pleasant," Barker said.
That point was underscored in a statement released by Gov. Mike DeWine’s press secretary. Dan Tierney said those who operate their businesses disregarding safety guidelines, designed to protect the health of their customers and all Ohioans, are being irresponsible and need to understand these guidelines will be enforced.